During the High Holy Days, and Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – in particular, there is a commonly observed Jewish custom of not wearing leather shoes. One reason given for this custom is that traditionally leather shoes have been seen as being more comfortable than other shoes, and on a day of such solemnity one should minimise one’s comforts.
Another basis for this custom is that it would be inappropriate to wear leather shoes on this day of repentance, as an animal had to die in order for those shoes to be made. To some degree I agree with this and thus, last year, I made the decision to not wear leather shoes throughout the entire High Holy Day period.
This year I’ve not been quite as observant in this regard, mainly because my energies have been focused on things other than what clothes to wear and what shoes go with which outfit. But also, last year, while I did make a conscious decision to not wear leather, I couldn’t get this niggling thought out of my head: Why is it seen as inappropriate to wear shoes [or coats, belts, handbags and so on] made from leather only* at this time of the year? Surely, if you truly believe that one should not wear something for which an animals life had to be sacrificed, then this must be true all year round? No?
Now, while I’m not prepared to give up my Vans, Docs or other items made of leather, I have been pondering this idea, on and off, and wondering if there is not perhaps another way for me to honour the fact that an animal had to die for me to have those comforts? Or maybe an additional way?
So, this morning I got all of my leather shoes and boots out, and spent a good few hours cleaning, polishing and buffing them. I didn’t do it in order to make them look good – although that is a nice side effect, indeed – but to make sure I kept them in the best possible condition for them to last as long as possible.
I know this probably sounds like the seventh degree of madness, but while sitting there, doing this work, I really did feel an odd sense of connection with something other than just a pair of old Docs. I was sitting there, remembering all the times I’ve worn those boots, how much I love them, how they’ve been with me for such a long time – almost as if we’ve been on this big spiritual journey together, and that through caring for those shoes I was in a sense paying my respect to the animal from which they came. And it felt meaningful.
Will I be wearing my Docs for Yom Kippur? Probably not.
But I do feel that the true repentance, or, rather, the genuine acknowledgement that these boots didn’t just spring out of nowhere, took place during those moments of connection – and came from a very real place.
PS. If you enjoyed this alternative take on atonement, you may be interested in reading this piece, written by Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers about how people suffering from an eating disorder could make teshuvah by not fasting on Yom Kippur.